Years of drug abuse made it impossible for Belinda Demeroy, 51, to sustain enough income to keep a home.
After living in five different apartments between 2004 and 2006 and bouncing around local homeless shelters, she was finally able to find stability and a feeling of acceptance when she enrolled at the Interfaith House on the West Side this past September.
After a stint at a women’s recovery center, Demeroy was able to move into Interfaith and have a chance to rebuild her life.
“I’ve changed the way I look at life,” she said. “I now know that life is worth living.”
The Interfaith House is a homeless shelter for people suffering from mental or physical ailments. Interfaith only accepts clients who don’t have a reliable place to recover and are referred to them by hospitals or health clinics. The shelter, opened in 1994, houses about 60 people at a time and served approximately 300 people in 2008.
They keep a very structured system while also encouraging their clients to be active in rebuilding their lives, even helping them find jobs.
“We offer a lot of programs that help prepare people for the future,” said Laura Wetter, the center’s communications and volunteer coordinator. “We stay in contact for up to three months after they leave here to make sure they’re progressing with their lives.”
Among the programs offered by the shelter are a 9 a.m. optional praying session and seminars for job searching, classes in English as a second language, creative writing and daily living skills. Perhaps one of the more important services the Interfaith House provides is a full-time mental health case manager named Arizbel Preciado. She is responsible for providing psychological care to all residents and referring those with more serious conditions to local psychiatrists.
“Many of the people in here have mental health problems and they feel embarrassed to treat them,” Preciado said. “If one of them had chest pains, they wouldn’t hesitate to see a doctor, but if they’re seriously depressed or having mood swings, they don’t think a doctor can help. They get defensive when they’re accused of having a mental problem.”
According to studies done by the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, approximately 25 percent of homeless people suffer from severe mental illness and up to 30 percent have chronic substance abuse issues. Preciado said the two most common ailments she deals with are depression and bipolar disorder. Sometimes, the best way to help them is by “selling” them on the idea of treating their mental illness.
“A lot of times I have to be like a salesperson and watch what I say,” she said. “I can’t just say ‘You have to see a psychiatrist, you have psychosis’ or they will never get treated. I have to make it seem okay to see a doctor.”
After persuading a patient to go to a doctor, another problem arises. Preciado said many poor people who do not have healthcare coverage go to the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County. Because so many people go to Stroger, they may only be able to see a psychiatrist every three or four months.
“Once they finally get an appointment, the only thing they get there is refills,” Preciado said.
On the other hand, she added, the Interfaith House is partnered with Mt. Sinai Hospital and is able to give their clients free coverage for visits to a psychiatrist every couple weeks. Even after a client is discharged from Interfaith, they are able to continue getting their care at Mt. Sinai. Demory is among the many Interfaith residents who have enjoyed the care the staff has provided, especially in terms of her mental health.
“Arizbel [Preciado] is so easy to talk to,” said Demeroy. “Since I’ve been here I’ve talked about a lot of issues I never thought I’d talk to anyone about. It’s really helped me get through this.”
William Collins, 46, of Englewood, has lived at Interfaith for two months and appreciates the support he gets from the staff. They’ve been working with him to help him battle his previous heroin addiction and also helping him find a place to live in the future.
Despite all the good will, he took issue with a recent discussion group held about personal hygiene. Collins thought it was unnecessary to have this discussion because all the people living at Interfaith know the value of keeping clean.
“We all have free water and free products available here, so why wouldn’t we use them?” Collins asked. “I asked everyone ‘What happens if you don’t shower?’ The No. 1 answer I got? You start to stink! It was like an episode of Family Feud.”
Collins felt that they could have used the time to talk about something more constructive.
“Besides that incident, I really have no qualms with this place.”